A Very Special Week at The Movie House

The Grand Illusion celebrates one of Seattle’s greatest cinephiles 📽️

A row of soft, plush movie theater chairs inside of The Grand Illusion in the U District in Seattle.

📸: Courtesy Grand Illusion

Seattle lost one of its greatest cinephiles this past October when Dennis Nyback, 69, succumbed to cancer. A programmer, curator, and collector, Nyback is responsible for launching and/or perfecting such movie houses as the Rosebud Movie Palace, the Jewel Box Theater, the Pike Street Cinema (all Seattle), and the Clinton Street Theater in Portland. To put it mildly, the Pacific Northwest artistic landscape simply wouldn’t be the same without him, and the Grand Illusion Cinema in the U District hopes to pay its respects with a proper tribute early this January.

“I knew the Grand Illusion would have to do something,” said Brian Alter, longtime GI volunteer (having acted as lead programmer, manager, and a handful of other jobs for almost 20 years now). “Not only was his history deep within the Seattle film scene—he was the projectionist for the first Seattle International Film Fest among so many other things—he had a very unique connection to the Grand Illusion. He was a projectionist here in the mid-1970s back when it was called ‘The Movie House.’”

Alter took inspiration from old email correspondence with Nyback—”He’d check in from time to time with the email subject: ‘Dennis here’”—and in particular a pitch called “A Week at The Movie House.”

“I knew I didn’t want the tribute to be too serious or dour,” Alter continued. “Dennis’ mantra for his own programs was that they’d always be ‘educational, entertaining, and 90 minutes.’ I also wanted to show the films from 35mm prints if possible, since that’s how they were shown in the ’70s and we try to show 35mm whenever possible.”

A poster for the movie "Gold Diggers of 1933"

📸: Courtesy Grand Illusion


GOLD DIGGERS in 35mm 🌟

Friday, January 6th • 7:30 pm
Saturday, January 7th • 5:30 pm

Up first is Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933. I never try to put movies into a certain hole. Movies can look and feel like whatever they want, no film has ever been made for every single citizen of Earth to enjoy, one’s experience with the world may not be another’s, there’s somebody out there for everybody, one man’s trash yadda yadda yadda. That said, I also think all movies should look and feel like Gold Diggers of 1933, a backstage musical with some of the most genuinely insane setpieces in American film, staged and choreographed by the genius himself, Busby Berkeley. 42nd Street may be Berkeley’s most publicly acknowledged contribution to cinema, but I’d put this one at the top of his canon, along with Footlight Parade, 1934’s Dames, and 1937’s Hollywood Hotel (which he directed solo).

“Dennis’ email mentioned a couple things, including ‘Busby Berkeley,’” Alter said, “and based on my initial search, I knew Gold Diggers of 1933 was shown here in the mid-1970s. He could’ve had other films in mind, but we’ll never know. No matter because it’s an all-time classic, a fun pre-Code musical chock full of stylish and surreal numbers. Warner Bros had a print, so I booked it!”

A poster for the movie Yojimbo

📸: Courtesy Grand Illusion


YOJIMBO in 35mm ⚔️

Saturday, January 7th • 8 pm
Sunday, January 8th • 5 pm
Wednesday, January 11th • 7:30 pm

Next up is Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, starring the legendary Toshirô Mifune. One of the great samurai films, Yojimbo finds Mifune as a stranger in a new land who pits two crime lords against each other for the sake of the town’s citizens. An international sensation, it also inspired Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, launching Clint Eastwood’s celebrity into the stratosphere.

More from Alter: “The email also mentioned ‘samurai films,’ which was a little daunting to me—I appreciate all kinds of films but I’m hardly a samurai completist. I imagine he projected quite a few samurai films in the ’70s, and a ‘Samurai film fest’ flyer still hangs inside the auditorium entrance at the GI. Still, it was easy to pick one of my favorite samurai films, Yojimbo, and there’s no way Dennis didn’t love that film. It’s another wildly entertaining and highly influential classic and I knew we could get a 35mm print from Janus Films. In fact, Janus doesn’t even offer a DCP of the film for exhibition.”

A poster for the movie Scopitone

📸: Courtesy Grand Illusion



Sunday, January 8th • 7:30 pm

One particular programmed piece details Nyback’s legend as one of the few who collected Scopitones, or early versions of music videos. So rare was his collection that Nyback ended up being covered on MTV in the late 1990s. The evening also acts as a charitable outing, as all proceeds will be donated to the American Cancer Society in Dennis’ name.

“I wanted to try and show something that was an original Dennis Nyback program,” Alter explained. “In the late ’90s, Dennis became semi-famous for his collection of Scopitones (short music films from the ’60s played in vending machines). At some point, he transferred an 80-minute program of his Scopitones to video and sold it on his website (I watched a VHS tape of Scopitones in the late ’90s, long before I knew Dennis). Since we can’t show his Scopitone prints, we’ll show the DVD that features a snippet of Dennis’ MTV interview!”

📸: Courtesy Grand Illusion



Monday, January 9th • 7:30 pm
Thursday, January 12th • 7:30 pm

If you’re in the mood for the surreal, how about putting a little Luis Buñuel into your brain? If you went to film school or at least took a couple courses, it’s likely you’ve set eyes on the Spanish-Mexican filmmaker’s work, whether it be his Salvador Dalí collaboration Un Chien Andalou, his debut feature L’Age d’Or, the Catherine Deneuve-starring Belle de Jour, or final film That Obscure Object of Desire. But as the United States goes through late capitalism, it’s high time to check out his satire on upper class foolishness with 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, about a group of rich a-holes trapped inside a mansion.

“As I was putting the series together,” Alter said, “I got in touch with Dennis’ longtime friend Kevin Shannon. Kevin pitched Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as he knew it was one of Dennis’ favorite films. I’ve seen other Buñuel films, but not that particular film. Anyway, it seemed appropriate that we should show something Dennis held in such high regard.”

📸: Dennis Nyback | Photo by Doug Stewart



Tuesday, January 10th • 7:30 pm

Nyback’s flair for cinema history takes center stage with Through the Portholea collection of 16mm shorts assembled by the Sprocket Society. A plethora of pleasures, oddities, tame, salacious, and everything in between, it’s a peek inside Nyback’s vast archive. And just like “Scopitone A Go Go,” all proceeds will go to the American Cancer Society.

Alter can’t wait until Seattle bears witness to this event. “Almost everything Dennis showed at the GI was on 16mm (I once projected a rare 35mm print he had of Motley Crue’s video of ‘Shout at the Devil’), so I knew we had to do a 16mm program. Dennis’ collection is in the process of being properly catalogued and preserved, so we couldn’t get any of his prints. Most of his programs were compilations of short films based around a subject, so I asked Spencer Sundell of the Sprocket Society, who frequently presents similarly structured programming in Seattle, to put together a 16mm show. Spencer just so happens to own a print of a cartoon that Dennis’ said was his favorite, too!”

(Full disclosure: Grand Illusion is 100% run by volunteers, and I am one of them.)

Make it a date ♥️

Looking for things to do around the U District before or after a screening? We’ve got you.


Marcus Gorman

Marcus Gorman is a Seattle-based playwright and film programmer. He once raised money for a synagogue by marathoning 15 Adam Sandler movies in one weekend. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @marcus_gorman.

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